Homily, Making Peace with the Wolf
The Transitus of St. Francis, October 3, 2021
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s an old 14th century collection of Franciscan legends about St. Francis called The Little Flowers of St. Francis. One of the stories in this collection is entitled, “Of the Most Holy Miracle of St. Francis in Taming the Fierce Wolf of Gubbio.” The story takes place in a small medieval village in the Italian countryside called Gubbio where the people were being terrorized by a large, ferocious wolf. Not only did the wolf attack and kill their livestock, often people themselves would die at the teeth of this terrible beast and while many tried to hunt the creature and put it down for the relief of the community, they were unable to do so. Has all the makings for a great monster movie doesn’t it?
And so the people of Gubbio lived in fear of this wolf for sometime and never left the gates of the village without a large group of armed men to go along with them. One day this strange and rough looking character from Assisi named Francis came to the village. The people had heard of Francis’ unending compassion and joyful preaching and welcomed him gladly but in fear for his safety they called out to him from the village walls, “Hurry, Francis! There is a ferocious wolf! Come quickly inside!”
But Francis turned toward the edge of the forest and approached it. It wasn’t long before he heard the howling of the wolf followed by the sight of its glowing eyes in the darkness. In a second the wolf charged at Francis and the people watching not far off gasped in fear. But Francis stood his ground making the sign of the cross over the wolf and his eyes of compassion pierced the wolf to the core who had never seen any person respond to him in this way. And so just before overcoming Francis the wolf stopped and promptly laid in the dirt before him.
The story picks up here with Francis’ words to the wolf:
“Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God…but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offenses, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.” Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what St Francis said. On this St Francis added: “As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?” Then the wolf, bowing his head, made a sign that he consented. Said St Francis again: “Brother wolf, wilt thou pledge thy faith that I may trust to this thy promise?” and putting out his hand he received the pledge of the wolf; for the latter lifted up his paw and placed it familiarly in the hand of St Francis, giving him thereby the only pledge which was in his power.”
That day the Wolf of Gubbio became the beloved and trusted companion of the villagers, who years later would mourn his death after a long life.
Now I know this story has some questionable historical reliability, but it does resonate deeply with the story of the real St. Francis. Francis never met an enemy in his life.
In 1219 at the height of the Fifth Crusade Francis traveled to Egypt where his Christian brothers were violently waging war against the Muslims and Francis crossed enemy lines and met with Sultan Malik-al-Kamil who then ate and drank with Francis as a friend and sent him on his way.
In 1221, Francis wrote in his rule for the community of the little brothers, as he called them, “Whoever comes to the brothers, friend or foe, thief or robber, should be received with kindness.” And evidently it happened often that robbers did come, and Francis would welcome them, feed them, and send them on their way with whatever they wanted.
And even on Francis’ death bed in 1226, he welcomed his own death as a sibling, as a Sister, unafraid and ever joyful. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” wrote St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:26) and that is exactly what happened for Francis, because he did not see death as an enemy, but welcomed it as friend. Francis believed the only way to truly destroy an enemy was to befriend them. He took the phrase “kill them with kindness” to an entirely new level.
This evening as we commemorate the death of St. Francis, I pray that his life might be an inspiration to us. We live so much of our lives fighting the things that we fear. We fight one another across the political aisle and the religious divide. We fight with one another in our families clinging to old wounds. We fight the things in our lives that frighten us. Things like paying our bills, living with depression or anxiety, being sick with disease, being rejected by others. We’re afraid of so many wolves that wreak havoc in our lives and we fight them all.
But the life and witness of St. Francis teaches us what Jesus meant in the sermon on the mount when he said, “Love your enemy.” What would happen if we put down our arms and instead of running from and battling with all the things that scare us in life we welcomed them as brothers, sisters, siblings, opportunities to share and experience the love of God “in whom we live and move and have our being?” What would happen?
On the night of his death Francis asked for the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet to be read because for Francis Jesus was the model of this life of radical welcome. He took seriously Jesus’ words—Jesus’ words to be a servant to all, to be the least of all, to become like a child, to sell all he had, to love his enemy, to care for all. For Francis, Jesus was everything. And so as we celebrate Francis this week let us be inspired by his way of life and remember that being inspired by the way of Francis is so much more than blessing animals and spending time out in the garden (though it absolutely includes that), being inspired by the way of Francis is about following Jesus and befriending our enemies. So may we follow Jesus, may we be inspired by Francis, and may we find peace with the wolf. Amen.